Prayer as Public Spectacle

Corporate prayer has a long and storied history in Christianity (and other world religions as well). Public prayer has been a way of calling people to worship, a means of congregational intercession, and a way of teaching others to pray.

There is a danger, however, when we pray aloud before a group, that the intended recipient of our prayers may not be almighty God, but the assembled crowd. We may, intentionally or unintentionally, cross the line between humbly approaching God’s throne of grace with our petitions and giving a speech to a crowd using spiritual language. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for us to allow our personal agendas to slip into our public prayers.

I have to admit, I approach this topic with a sense of trepidation. In critiquing the public prayers of others I’m all too aware of the times I have fallen into this same trap – praying to be heard by the crowd more than by God.  But the public prayers offered up (out?) during President Obama’s inauguration brought this to mind. Apparently, I’m not alone – Michael Spencer (Internet Monk) had an excellent post on his blog yesterday. I invite you to check it out here.

Three prominent figures offered “official” prayers during the festivities – Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist and pastor of the Saddleback Church, is well-known among evangelical circles. He hosted both Barack Obama and John McCain at his church last year. Bishop Eugene Robinson of the Episcopal Church, USA, is well-known as the first avowed homosexual to serve as a bishop in the ECUSA. Rev. Joseph Lowery is a pastor and veteran civil rights leader, who offered the benediction at the close of the inauguration ceremonies.

Each of these men was invited by President Obama, as is his right and part of long-standing tradition. These three men represent very different segments within the Christian community of our country. Each is well-known and controversial in some way. Dr. Warren’s invitation evoked ire from the left for his support of Proposition 8 in California, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. Bishoop Robinson is a vocal advocate of the gay/lesbian/trans-gender lifestyle and a divisive figure within the Episcopal Church. Rev. Lowery has been at the fore-front of the civil rights movement for years, earning both accolades and ridicule from various segments of our population.

Even before these men opened their mouths to pray, the media spent much air-time and bandwidth speculating about what they would say? Would Warren pray in Jesus’ name? Would Robinson mention God at all? Would Lowery say something controversial? As it turned out the answers were, in order: Yes, What?, and Of course!

Now, my comments regarding these men’s prayers are nothing you haven’t heard if you’ve watched 30 seconds of coverage in the past 24 hours. Warren prayer in Jesus’ name 3 times in 3 different languages. Robinson addressed a generic ” God of our understanding,” whoever that is, and Lowery’s prayer was very poetic, ending with a not-so-subtle dig at Caucasians.  I show my own evangelical bias when I say that Warren’s speech seemed more God-centered and less political or sectarian in nature. I would have said the same for Rev. Lowery’s prayer except for a recitation he has used before:  “…help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.” I wasn’t personally offended by that, but found it rather judgemental of whites in general.

You are, of course, free to disagree.

My point is that such public-event prayers tend to lapse into political speech. Personally, I believe both Warren and Lowery genuinely and sincerely offered their prayers to God. Robinson’s prayer was more to “whom it may concern,” sincere or not. All of these public prayers were spectacles within a larger spectacle – the inauguration of a president. I’m all for praying at inaugurations, but I wonder at all of the hype and media attention that surrounded these prayers (he opined, typing furiously away at his blog!)

A particular passage of scripture came to mind yesterday after the public inauguration events were over. Read it and mull over it. It sure made me think. . . and not very highly of myself.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. – Proverbs 14:34

Like I said, think about it. Oh, and remember to pray for our new president and our nation! But maybe we should all do it from our prayer closets and not in front of cameras. Just a thought.

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2 Comments on “Prayer as Public Spectacle”

  1. Doug Says:

    It is my personal pet peeve to hear ‘agenda’ prayers in group settings – I never used to recognize them until my bride (who has a strong gift of ‘Intercession’) pointed out their unfortunate frequency. There is also the ‘obvious’ prayer…

    Interestingly, at last weekend’s services at our church, visiting pastor, Dr. Richard Allen Farmer ended his sermon with the same quote as Dr. Lowery. Going back to Trinity UCC controversies, maybe such statements are more cultural reflections.

  2. Rodney Says:

    There is always the ‘temptation’ for public prayer to become a recitation of prose rather than an offering of praise; a listing of catch phrases rather than a petition for God’s grace. While “consideration” of the content of the anticipated prayer is always proper (why not prepare when going into the Presence of the Holy God), spontaneous content is often from the heart, and not the head. Public prayer should get the attention of the listeners, but they should then be led to join the one voicing the prayer in humbleness before a forgiving Father who desires relationship with us. Like you, I found Warren’s offering more tasteful and ‘genuine’, while I question the entire tone of Robinson. Knowing Joseph Lowery from my time in Atlanta, I do not question his heart for God but I do take issue with using prayer to indict others for a history of intolerance as if that bigotry is all one-sided. I found the weekend commentary by Evans in the Montgomery Advertiser quite interesting as he talked about public prayers; you might find it insightful, too.

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